The Grieving of the (Non) Gathering of God’s People

We now enter the third Sunday where our church is unable to gather together.

And this week it has finally hit me.

I’m grieving. I’m sad.

Perhaps I’m a little angry, but mainly I’m sad.

The Grieving of the (Non) Gathering of God’s People

I’ve been involved in church life all my life. Being born into a pastors family means church is part of my life and lifestyle of my weekly rhythms–as it is for many Christians around the world. And it is in this time of uncertainty and alleviated stress where we seek the rhythms of familiarity. There is something about our nature that seeks rhythm and regular structures in our lives.

And so over the last few days I’ve been aware enough to notice that my emotions have changed as I’ve gone about my responsibilities this week. Knowing we are not gathering as the local expression of God’s people here at Rowville changes the nature of how I think about my weekend. While I may well be on the premises during our livestream, while I may know many from our community maybe watching even, I know it is different and there is something sad about this.

In our secularised, comfortable Western world grief and sadness are not seen as positive emotions. In modern Christianity we are more inclined to want to speak encouragement, we want to push people to see the joy, and take up the opportunity of the season. And of course, we know that God is in control in all of this, there is hope; the peace of our souls does not rest upon the prevailing winds of the world.

Instead, we worship a God, who through Christ Jesus, laid his solid foundation of hope and joy upon our hearts–knowing we are still held in him with enduring joy.

Yet, I’m still feeling sad. I’m still experiencing the grief of not being able to gather with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

For two years I lived in a small village in the mountains of Lebanon. I was apart from my home church back here in Melbourne, but I gathered each week with a local community of believers and ex-pats that I was working with.

Despite being away from my home church, what I knew and what I experienced was still a closeness with those I gathered with each week. Even though I didn’t know many of them very well, particularly in the initial months, I was encouraged and reminded of our unity as part of the family of God.

This time it feels incredibly different.

It isn’t simply being away from the usual sheep pen I reside in, this time it feels like we’re all out of our usual sheep pens and left out in the pasture. This isn’t to say God is not with us. Nor is it to say we aren’t all alone–modern technology accounts for something, but not everything.

The feeling of isolation, loneliness, and sadness comes from not being able to gather together with our church family. Rather than try to find some sort of faux-joy in amongst all the strangeness, perhaps it is appropriate to lament…?

After all, we enter Passion Week tomorrow, the week that symbolises the final week of Jesus’ life, culminating in his horrific death and glorious resurrection.

And perhaps this is something we can take away from this season? As we recognise the aloneness of this season this year it may help us enter more into the aloneness of Christ during this time. Though Jesus was surrounded by his disciples, and though he continued his ministry in this final week, we read of the unique isolation he felt as he headed toward the cross. Luke 22:42-44 helps reveal this to us:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” Then an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. Being in anguish, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground.

And so, while we may feel alone, sad, and grieved, unable to meet in the same physical location this week perhaps this provides us with an opportunity to see Jesus more clearly and walk his way more steadily?

Podcast: #002 of The Sean & Jon Show

You won’t believe it. We’ve made it to episode #2.

Here Sean and I discuss our lives amongst the coronavirus and imminent shut down. Sean again tries to rename the coronavirus, moving on from last weeks attempt. We chat all this church online, and a few ways in how to de-stress in these times too.

You can listen here, and also subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Podcast: #001 of The Sean & Jon Show

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything worth reading. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve done anything of substance on here.

But, we have entered a strange new season in our world with this COVID-19 virus spreading around the globe.

In light of the unfolding changes this is bringing to our world, and particularly to the church community I’m involved in, me and our new Youth Pastor at Rowville Baptist have begun a podcast. It’s all very experimental right now, so be kind! But we do hope it brings some lightness in amongst the heaviness and confusion of these days. We will be exploring life and faith in these days and would love for you to join us.

Have a listen. Subscribe. Rate. Whatever!

You can listen here

The Sean & Jon Show - Podcast Graphic

My Top Posts of 2019

I continue to plug away on this thing called a blog. There are times when I wonder whether any of the words I string together to make sentences and paragraphs are worth publishing. But it seems this year has seen continued growth on this blog, and also some wider writing on other ministry sites, so that’s been encouraging.

In typical fashion I started out the year with a flurry of posts and articles but it seems I went missing in the second half of the year.

Below I list the top 5 posts in 2019 as well as some stats for the year. For those interested in stats from previous years you can read about 20152016, 2017, and 2018.

Top Posts of 2019

The Top Five Posts:

  1. 10 Tips For Reading In 2019
  2. Making The Bible Project Your Bible Reading Plan For 2018
  3. My Top Books of 2018
  4. Growing Young – Keychain Leadership
  5. 11 Things: The Senior Pastor-Youth Pastor Relationship

Some Reflections:

The only post actually written in 2019 was the first one, ’10 Tips For Reading In 2019′. The reason this made it to number one was because it got picked up by a very popular blogger in North America. The traffic that sent to this site was out of this world, particularly compared to usual!

I found myself writing 21 articles or posts for other ministry sites. I don’t get to know how well those did in terms of page views, but due to the sites I wrote for I’m fairly confident the readership will have been larger than I could reach.

The top five posts actually written in 2019 go to:

  1. 10 Tips For Reading In 2019
  2. New Children’s Ministry Initiative Makes Worship Leaders Walk Out Of Service
  3. My Top Books For 2019
  4. The Inadequate Youth Pastor
  5. Christian Blogging And Social Media

Raw Stats for 2019:

In 2019 I managed to:

  • Publish 54 individual posts on joncoombs.com.
  • Write over 29,800 words from those individual posts.
  • Have 11,657 views on the site for 2019 (up from 7700 in 2018).
  • Increase to 185 followers to the blog, as well as 34 email subscribers.
  • Publish 21 articles on other ministry sites.

This is actually more encouraging the more I think about it. I didn’t think I’d posted on average once per week, but it looks like I have. Writing for other sites at nearly every other week is also a pleasing goal to have achieved.

While right now it’s holiday time, and really the last couple of months I’ve not been in the zone to write and publish, I do hope I can continue to plug away at this again in 2020.

Anyway, if you’re a regular reader, thanks for popping by. I hope it’s been useful for you as it has been for me.

My Top Books of 2019

Well, it’s that time of year folks.

The unveiling of the top books I’ve read for 2019.

Exciting, isn’t it?!

Continuing my long-standing tradition of pretentiously blogging a list of books I read and rated highly, I submit my 2019 edition to you.

Oh, and here’s the previous years if you wish to read those lists too: 2014201520162017, 2018.

My Top Books of 2019

Excellent. This is an excellent book. Theology of sleep. Theology of rest. Theology of living by grace. Theology of sustaining ministry. Excellent. I don’t think I could’ve started the year off with a better book. In this age of hurry, burnout, and distraction this book is a good reminder we need to slow-down in this hurried life.

A different approach from Grisham in some ways. I found the storyline great, although I know plenty of people who didn’t. As usual it’s fast-paced, full of intrigue, and picking up themes of race and culture in the American South.

I haven’t read this since I read a children’s version when a child. It was good to listen to the audiobook and I found myself reminded of how good the story of ‘Christian’ is. Some terrific Christian themes and a good reminder of what it takes to remain faithful and persevere in the marathon that is the Christian life.

This was the best youth ministry book I read all year. It only came out mid-year and I was keen to get my hands on it. As I wrote in a review:

I have not read a youth ministry book which actually quotes Hebrew and Greek in its pages. But now I have. And it’s not just quoted for McGarry to look scholarly, it’s quoted to show the meaning behind a number of texts in the Old and New Testaments that build towards the book’s aim of,

…presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelising and co-discipling the next generation. (p3)

Sam Allberry writes really well about biblical sexuality and same-sex attraction. A same-sex attracted minister himself, Allberry writes this brief book about the biblical understanding of homosexuality and what it means for those who are same-sex attracted. I found this a very helpful primer on these themes.

Continuing in a similar vein, DeYoung dives deep into the various passages in the Bible which speak of homosexuality. Furthermore, he writes to those who are critics of Biblical sexuality seeking to winsomely show the fault in their understandings. It is very good on the exegetical front and a good resource for teaching on such a topic.

For a personalised summary of all the books I read this year you can check out my Goodreads infographic for 2019.

Exploring The Habits of The Christian Life: Listening To Sermons

There is much on the Interwebs that speaks of how best to listen to sermons, even books have been written on the topic. However, as I work my way through the book Habits of Grace by David Mathis I am struck by the simplicity and meaning in listening to a sermon.

When we think of listening often we imagine ourselves not talking, and that’s about it. But, of course, listening requires more of us than simply shutting our mouths. It requires intentionality in actually hearing what someone is saying to us. It means we need to stop and focus, it means we need to take the time to hear someone out before chiming in with our own thoughts on the conversation at hand.

In a section on listening Mathis speaks of the grace that comes when we take time to actually listen to a sermon. The preaching of the Word is God speaking to his particular people in a particular location, and so listening is an important skill in this instance. But the symbolism of this act of listening is deeper than perhaps we’ve thought of before.

While preaching can get a bad rap, it is one of the ongoing activities of the Christian faith where God speaks to us through another human. And while the rest of our week may be filled with different activities, conversations about faith even, there comes a time where the faithful gather and seek to listen together to God’s Word. There are plenty of hours in the week to do other things that pertain to our life and faith, but for 30 minutes a week Christians gather to close their mouths and listen to the preaching of the Bible. This is fascinating act, a symbolic act, by believers around the world as they seek to encounter Jesus more deeply and in a powerful way. And even then, many are restless and sleepy for those 30 minutes too.

The other aspect to this is the fact that it is Christians gathered together. There is a corporate and communal aspect to the worship of God in church each week. It is not an individualistic activity, despite people not knowing one-another too deeply at times. It is the Christian community of a particular location getting together to hear from God together. Another sign of the unity that comes through Christ. And as Mathis writes,

“But preaching is not just about Jesus; it is his way of being personally present with his church. Good preaching brings the church into an encounter with her Groom by the Holy Spirit. As Jason Meyer writes, “The ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word. In faithful Christian preaching, we not only hear about Jesus, but we meet him.”

As Calvin once wrote about the purpose of preaching, “…to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.”

While we may find preaching tedious at times I appreciate the fact that God has set this as one of the ways he gives us grace. In all our other activities of faith, particularly on a Sunday morning, there is the giving and receiving of grace to God. Through songs, through prayers, through communion even, we are often speaking to God as well as hearing from him. Through the preaching of his word we actually take the time to be still and quiet before him, solely receiving from him.

I wonder if this affects our thinking about the sermon for this weekend? 

Exploring The Habits of The Christian Life: Reading The Bible For Application

In recent time I’ve been exploring what modern Christianity would call the ‘spiritual disciplines’. These are the habits, the actions, the lifestyle, the regular practices, which shape spiritual formation for the self.

As you can imagine these practices are centred around the Word and prayer. However, they also bring with them other practices that can help in our communion with God (think: fasting, solitude, silence, giving etc). And in the end that is the purpose of these practices, to help in our communion with God, leading us to enjoying Him in greater depth.

Modern proponents of the spiritual disciplines are people like Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, Donald Whitney and others. But generally when reading their books they are often footnoting the divines of ages past. This week, as I’ve been reading David Mathis’ book, The Habits of Grace, one such quote from the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson caught my eye enough to highlight. He writes,

“Take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: “God means my sins;” when it presseth any duty, “God intends me in this.” Many put off scripture from themselves, as if it only concerned those who lived in the time when it was written; but if you intend to profit by the word, bring it home to yourselves: a medicine will do no good, unless it be applied.”

How often do we read the Bible and seek to apply it to ourselves in a way that brings it home to ourselves? Often we can read the Bible for the sake of understanding more of the Bible, it’s history, it’s context, the people it was originally written to, but how often do we apply it to ourselves in a way that means we need to apply it?

For those of us who have been walking with Jesus for a while, who are familiar with the Bible, and understand many of its contours we can easily skip the application of the text for us.

As Mathis rightfully highlights following this quote, it is important to understand the Word in its context, how it relates to Jesus and the cross, before seeking to apply it to ourselves. But after reading it in this way, do we take the next step in applying it for ourselves, meditating on it to find where it may be speaking to us, insightfully helping us to see how we may need to change our thinking or actions?

5 Ways To ‘Recover’ From A Short-term Mission Team

When leaving the gym I often observe people immediately drinking their protein shakes. I’m not entirely convinced of their usefulness for an average fitness plodder like myself. However, I can understand the need for these recovery shakes to be consumed by those involved in elite sport. You see, recovery is viewed as an important part of any athletes training regime. It’s not just about preparation and training. Nor is it simply about what happens on the day of competition. Included in a holistic approach to the athlete’s growth and health is recovery.

This is the same when it comes to short-term mission teams (an in reality most ministry programs and events).

5 Ways To Recover From a Short-term Mission Team

It can often be the case that recovery from these short-term experiences is severely lacking. Much time is spent in preparation and on the trip itself. However, when it comes to debrief and recovery many find themselves left alone to work out how to process such an experience.

But recovery is so essential in these situations. Whether it is a cross-cultural short-term team, or whether it is in a place where we feel more comfortable, recovery and debrief are vital in helping us process what we’ve experienced and learnt during the adventure.

These type of trips and teams are particularly intense for a short period of time, often with people we don’t know so well, and doing tasks and activities out of our comfort zone. With it comes culture, relational, and emotional shock because of what we see, hear, smell, and taste. Therefore, it is important to ‘recover’ and reflect from these things.

Using the word ‘recover’ in this way is not to suggest negativity, but it is about reflecting on the experience. It is about making decisions and gaining clarity and perspective on what we learnt during our time away.

What recovering is not is making sure we are the same person upon our return. No, we hope to be changed, we hope we provided some change to others ourselves. And this is good. The point of recovery is not to regress back to the way things were, but point forward and apply the impact of our experience into our lives.

I’m a big believer in these short-term teams and also reflecting on these experiences. I believe anyone should go on one of these types of teams in their lifetime. They will widen our view of the world and provide tangible experiences of people and cultures that are different from us. But coming back into our own culture, with all its regular activities and people and responsibilities brings with it some difficulty. It can be a shock, it can be lonely, it can be disappointing, compared to the excitement and conversations going on in the trip. And so once it’s all over here are five things we can do to help us recover from such an experience.

First, we can pray. 

This seems obvious. But how often do we actually do it?

Praying gives us the opportunity to raise up our praises and gratitude for what God has given us, particularly the experiences we have had on a short-term mission trip. We can lift up those who we have met, the activities we were involved in, and the conversations that struck us. Our prayer lives are often enhanced because of these trips because they give us greater perspective. We can thank God for that.

But in prayer we can also lift up our questions, our struggles, and our joys. Prayer is an excellent start when seeking to recover from such a trip.

Second, we can spend time by ourselves reflecting on significant questions. 

Every time I have led a team I have always provided questions for each individual participant to complete once they are back home. Questions can make us think more deeply, and are helpful in making us think through our experience. There will have been joys and challenges, and we need the ability to name them. While conversations are helpful, time set apart for ourselves to think and process what we’ve done upon our return can helpful. I’d recommend doing this after 6-weeks, the 3-months, 6-months, and 12 months from your return.

Some questions you might like to consider are:

  • What did I learn about myself during my time away?
  • What did I learn about God and what it means to follow him as a disciple of Christ?
  • What did I learn about the people, the church, and the Christian community in the places I visited?
  • What did I learn about how culture impacts the way people live and understand the world?
  • How has my faith been impacted because of this experience? Have I learnt more about my own Christian calling through this trip?

What other questions might you add? 

Third, we can spend time with the people we went with. 

A meeting 4-6 weeks after the end of the trip is helpful to rekindle thought and relationship with those who went on the trip. If your group is from different geographical areas, then a video chat session would be another way to do this.

The reason for a team gathering soon after returning is because it helps us share stories. It provides an opportunity to share what has made a lasting impact. And it helps to know you’re not the only one going through the same challenges and struggles in coming home.

You generally form a strong bond with the people you go away with. Sometimes it doesn’t go well, and that means there might be other ways debrief and recovery needs to occur. But, most of the time, meeting up and telling the stories of the trip; what it’s like to be home and the hopes for the future, will be an encouraging way to wrap up the team experience.

Fourth, we can make sure we tell the stories with others. 

It is in the ability to tell the story of what has gone on during your time away that helps you become clearer in what you learnt, what God seems to be saying to you, and what the impact of the trip had upon you.

If you have gone with a team through your church then the opportunity to talk about your experience in a service, in a small group, or with a circle of friends is perfect. This helps you share what you’ve been up to, but also encourages others around you. Sometimes the reactions we receive from others is somewhat of a surprise, but it is important to remember that they can’t visualise or understand many of the things you went through. This is why sharing the stories is important, for you and for others.

I remember coming back from one short-term team, having spent a few weeks overseas with people I didn’t know too well. I had to talk it out with my colleagues and my wife, just to recover from what I’d experienced while away. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the cultural aspects, nor the project we were involved in, that caused the most anxiety. It was the team members I was with, and how they responded to various situations they were put in!

Sharing the stories and talking it out with safe friends and people is important in re-adjusting to ‘normal’ life.

Fifth, we can set some goals for the future.

As you have worked through these things it is also worth writing down things you’d like to accomplish off the back of this trip.

If we don’t set goals from the trip then it will just become another exciting experience that we’ve been on, perhaps a bit of travel to remember sometime in the future. Yet, if we believe God is working in us and through us, to grow us to be more like him and in his Christlike character, then it is worth pondering what life might look like having had this experience.

These goals don’t have to be world dominating. They could be three simple changes you’d like to make in your own life or faith. It could be one particular resolution you’d like to make because of what you’ve seen and heard. These goals could be anything from giving money to the projects you were involved in, praying for the place you visited, or become more involved in your church’s mission team. The goals and resolutions can be endless. However, sometimes it is better to set goals which are achievable. A goal that is personal, a goal that is faith-orientated, and a goal that is for the service of others.

With these in mind we can have confidence that this experience will last a lifetime.

Published: The Performance Trap

Last week I wrote about often feeling inadequate in the ministry, and it raised a few questions and comments. However, it also dove-tailed with a post I had published on The Gospel Coalition Australia later in the week, entitled “The Performance Trap“.

In this post I write about the amazing grace God gives to us, not because of anything we’ve done, but simply as a gift. Even though we may know this intellectually, often we fall back into performance-based living.

You can read the whole thing here.

“Intellectually we get it. We understand the heart of Christianity really isn’t about us, it’s about God and what he has done. Yet functionally we keep trying to make it about us. We are drawn back to performance in our attempt to live out our faith. In the end, we fall into performance traps; distorting the gospel and making our faith about us once again. “

Screen Shot 2019-10-05 at 2.53.07 pm